The envelopes started showing up in their mailboxes in January. The letters were vague and threatening, telling each recipient that a passenger from their past had claimed they did something wrong — the precise infraction was not specified — and they could lose their driving privileges if they failed to respond.
Hundreds — possibly more than 1,000 — of Washington taxi drivers are facing large fines as the D.C. Taxicab Commission works to clear a backlog of nearly 1,600 passenger complaints dating to 2012, raising questions about due process and excessive penalties at a time when many cabbies are struggling to survive as Uber and other ride-hailing apps drain their customer base.
“This must be a scam”
“When I got it I said, oh, this must be a scam!” said Aklile Gebremessih, a taxi driver for 25 years, over lunch at Chercher, an Ethiopian restaurant and popular spot for drivers in Shaw.
His letter is dated April 29 and is signed by David Pearson, the commission’s complaints officer. It states that in September 2014 he “exhibited behavior unbecoming of a District of Columbia taxicab driver.”
Nowhere does the template letter state the passenger’s exact allegation. It invites Gebremessih to attend “mediation,” meaning he will have a chance to agree to pay a smaller fine rather than risk taking his case to administrative court.
“If you decide not to appear for mediation, the Commission may file an enforcement action in this matter pursuant to regulations in DCMR Title 31 that may result in fines, suspension or permanent revocation of your driving privileges,” the letter stated.
“That’s really intimidation. It’s harassment,” Gebremessih said.
He decided not to respond and instead handed his case over to the local Teamsters union, which formed an association with about 2,000 independent D.C. cabbies. The Teamsters are representing drivers in the mediation hearings before the taxicab commission.
“It is not fair to drivers at all. They don’t give them proper notice,” said the Teamsters Royale Simms in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
In January, the commission faced a backlog of nearly 1,100 passenger complaints. Although the agency had resolved more than 1,800 complaints over the previous three years — with 910 resulting in a fine, suspension, or revocation of driving privileges — a shortage of staffing had left the new interim taxicab commission chairman, Eric Rogers, with a mountain of old complaints against cabbies to resolve.
Rogers hired extra staffing to assist Pearson, who had missed time from work with an illness, and the envelopes started going out in January for alleged offenses dating as far back as three years.
Rogers, who was replaced last week by Mayor Muriel Bowser, could not be reached for comment. The new interim chairman of the D.C. Taxicab Commission (DCTC), Ernest Chrappah, was unavailable for an interview, according to commission spokesman Neville Waters.
The number of complaints now scheduled for mediation is 1,598, Waters said in emailed responses to questions from WAMU 88.5. Over the past five months, DCTC has collected $52,410 in fines from drivers for the D.C. Treasury. Drivers have paid $2,320 to refund customers.
Questions about due process
Chapter 7 of Title 31, the enormous book of regulations governing vehicles-for-hire in the District, states that “Unless the Office determines that a public complaint is not actionable, it shall notify the respondent of the complaint within fourteen (14) calendar days after the public compliant has been submitted to the Office.”
That may explain why Felicia Serwaa, a cabbie since 1980, is confused about the five “invitations to mediate” she has received for two alleged violations of Title 31. Serwaa did not get either within 14 days. Passengers have 30 days to file their complaints with the DCTC.
“Recently, the way they are giving me the harassment is really, really bothering me. It is really, really bothering me,” said Serwaa, who is asking the Teamsters union for help.
She has agreed to settle one complaint for using her cell phone while driving. The fine was $35. Her other case remains open.
In August 2013 a passenger complained that Serwaa failed to drop him off at the correct place, a serious violation known as failure to haul. She faces a possible $600 which could be reduced if she accepts mediation.
But she did not receive the commission’s notification until January, a year and a half after the initial complaint. Her letter contained the same intimidating language as the one received by Gebremessih: “If you decide not to appear for mediation, the Commission may file an enforcement action… that may result in… revocation of your driving privileges.”
“That automatically gets drivers into the room. And they feel pressure that they might get their license suspended if they don’t show up,” said the Teamsters Simms. “And then once they are in the room the DCTC says, you violated a rule of Title 31 that is going to cost you $1000 if you go to court, but we will settle with you right now if you pay us $200, $300.”
Drivers say it is difficult to defend themselves when they can hardly remember a passenger interaction from months or years ago.
Laws trump regulations
Although it appears the DCTC is violating chapter 31, the District code governing civil infractions allows most city agencies to pursue a complaint beyond, in this case, the 14 days. In short, District law trumps the regulations. The DCTC may continue to pursue passengers’ complaints, especially if they involve serious infractions such as failure to haul.
“There is no statutory limit on notification. DCTC instituted a completed overhaul of the complaint process through regulatory action last year to respond to the backlog circumstance,” said the DCTC’s Waters. “These changes in combination with temporary staff added in January 2015 will eliminate the backlog by the end of June.”
“All customers who submit a complaint deserve to have their cases reviewed and adjudicated. This commitment is also applicable to drivers,” Waters said.
The backlog was the result of a lack of staffing, administrative inefficiencies “due to a paper-heavy process,” and a spike of complaints from passengers who claimed drivers resisted or refused to accept credit card payments. The DCTC’s troubled rollout of universal credit card acceptance took place two years ago.
“The Commission is making a concerted effort to bring all processes to a more efficient place,” Waters said.
There may be another reason why some drivers are not receiving the complaint notifications quickly.
“Many of these drivers do not maintain correct addresses with us,” said Ron Linton, who chaired the taxicab commission under former Mayor Vincent Gray. “We sent these out to the addresses of record, and when we don’t get a response, it takes us months sometimes to find out what their true address is, and then they get two complaints filed against them.”
Fines not the best remedy, Teamsters say
At a time when the District government is running budget surpluses, the Teamsters question the commission’s pursuit of large fines against drivers struggling to get by.
“If the city doesn’t need the money, why can’t the violations be more about compliance?” Simms said.
The commission has the option of putting the drivers through training instead of fining them, but it is never offered at mediation, Simms said.
Serwaa, the long-time cabbie, said the commission’s complaints officer did not appear the first three times she showed up for mediation, and her fourth visit did not resolve her “failure to haul” complaint.
“He would not listen to my side of the story. He was very rude and unprofessional,” she said.
The Teamsters also question the commission’s handling of reimbursements for passengers. Cabbies are asked to bring blank money orders to be filled out by the DCTC.
“There are accountability issues raised,” said Simms. “If you have thousands of drivers handing over blank money orders, you end up with a significant amount of money that is unaccounted for,” Simms said.
The DCTC’s Waters explained the money orders to reimburse passengers are designed to protect their confidentiality.
“In order protect the identity of a complainant who requests that their name remain anonymous, the driver is asked to leave the payee’s name blank. At all times and for each payment made, the driver receives a receipt from the Commission of the fines paid and for all refunds paid,” he said.